Take a Drink: for anything that reminds you of Tarantino or Leone
Take a Drink: whenever Dolmuchi (main character) shows how hard his head is
Take a Drink: for topknots
Take a Drink: whenever someone narrowly escapes death
Take a Drink: whenever someone mentions their (highly suspect) age
Take a Drink: whenever Ma-hyang (the female rebel) does something awesome
Take a Drink: for child abuse
Do a Shot: whenever they deserve it
Do a Shot: when the lion feeds
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
My experiences with Korean blockbusters are pretty mixed. Just like the Hollywood article, they’re designed to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, which is great if they really, well, please (The Thieves), and not so great if they think the crowd is a bunch of slack-jawed idiots (The Pirates). So, which way will Kundo: Age of the Rampant lean?
As far away as possible from The Pirates
Ha Jung-woo is a simple butcher who gets caught between a rich, young lordling (Kang Dong-won) and a group of rebellious bandits when the lordling hires him to murder the widow of his brother and father’s heir. He doesn’t follow through when he sees she’s pregnant, and loses his own family for his troubles. he joins the eclectic rebels, *ahem* sharpens those butchering skills, and sets out to get some revenge.
Almost from the very first minute you can tell what movies director Yoon Jong-bin’s been watching, but if you’re going to crib, crib from the best. From the music to the widescreen compositions, sharp closeups, and frozen and split frames, to the use of narrated flashback, Kundo is unquestionably a Spaghetti Western, but of the Tarantino New School of irreverent homage. However, binding that vision and aesthetic to a Joseon Dynasty costume drama setting, with mainstream Korean action style for seasoning, he creates a wholly unique dish.
With red pepper powder, because obviously.
My wife told me about the Ha Jung-woo Guarantee before watching this- whenever you see his name in the cast you know you’re in for a treat. He negotiates a tricky divide here, with comedy, pathos, and blinding vengeance all called for, and he delivers. In fact, the acting all around is great, with a wide range of unique characters making up the bandits in particular, with my favorites being Ma Dong-seok’s pining strongman and the object of his affection, the wonderfully profane, impossibly badass Yoon Ji-hye. Like a good Tarantino flick, though, the bad guy steals the show. Kang Dong-won plays a young, attractive, yet chilling force of destruction, but unlike too many villains, he’s given a backstory, a motivation, and intense bitterness, and even a few hints of sympathetic depth.
His and Ha Jung-woo’s final face-off is one hell of a fight, but the film is chock-full of brilliantly choreographed action setpieces. There’s also a nice balance of humor and darkness, the latter of which goes surprisingly far, and makes that vengeance extra sweet. All-in-all, it’s a nicely-balanced, well-made piece of entertainment.
As good as it is, there’s not much going on beneath the surface (not that there really needs to be). There’s a bit of a rich vs. poor, institutional commentary touched on, but not really developed much. Also, some of the humor and drama mix strangely, especially when Ha Jung-woo loses his family in a sequence that succeeds in wringing a few laughs out of his unkillability then boom! everybody else is dead. Ah, and CGI Baby will haunt your nightmares.
As is their wont.
Kundo: Age of the Rampant is a stylish, surprisingly dark, yet very entertaining mashup of Korean costume drama and Spaghetti Western. Move over The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, this is my Kimchi Western of choice.